What is the story of Chengdu?
Very few people have had the luxury of capturing a panorama of Chengdu, a city covering a vast area and often shrouded in fog.
Jia Nan, a Jiangxi-born photographer who works in Chengdu, resolved to bide his time to capture the perfect view in seemingly the most difficult way. He ascended Mount Longquan in the east of Chengdu at six every morning for three years, patiently waiting for the dissipation of clouds and fog.
Unprecedented clear skies finally emerged on the morning of June 5, 2017. Jia Nan seized the opportunity to take a succession of 32 pictures which were delicately combined to deliver a genuine panorama of Chengdu. The final image depicts an all-round view of Chengdu, but also clearly demonstrates that Chengdu stands on a plain sandwiched between two mountains.
Included in the panorama is the green-covered Mount Longquan. Farther away stands the 7,000 meter tall Mount Gongga, the 6,000-meter-high Peak Yaomei and summits along the Hengduan Mountains which are all clearly visible. The vast plain sandwiched between the two mountain ranges is dotted with man-made buildings. This magnificent and vibrant cluster is Chengdu, a mega-city with a permanent population of 16 million.
Notwithstanding the clear panorama, Chengdu still has many mysteries yet to be unraveled. It is a landlocked city in southwest China with no easy access to the outside world. Nor does it rest anywhere near the Yangtze River, like Chongqing or other river cities which are endowed with convenient water transport.
However, business elites hold a bullish view about Chengdu’s development prospects. Apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Chengdu is regarded as a prime place for fortune-seekers and dream-chasers.
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Ordinary people enjoy Chengdu’s lifestyle with great relish. It seems that the daily life of Chengdu-dwellers revolves around beautiful women, gastronomical delicacies, mahjong and tea houses. No wonder such an easy and comfortable life is coveted by many Chinese people.
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Chengdu has long topped other counterparts in the ranking of the most online searched provincial capital, well ahead of Hangzhou and Nanjing which have gained increasing popularity in recent years.
What kind of city is Chengdu?
Why does it hold such an enormous attraction?
Perhaps its charm comes from its inclusiveness to people from all walks of life. For over 3,000 years, people with diverse backgrounds, noble or civilian, have played their own part in this shared arena.
Part Ⅰ Birth
Tens of millions of years ago, the landmass of China was undergoing dynamic orogenesis with the continuous rise of the Hengduan Mountains, Daba Mountains, Mount Wu and Mount Dalou. Those mountains gradually moved closer together from the west, the north, the east and the south respectively, thus forming a huge basin at the center. This is how the Sichuan Basin came into being.
The Hengduan Mountains on the basin’s west side stand out from other mountains, with the formation of huge glaciers. Rivers originating from the melting of glaciers and rainfall roll out of the gorge with gravel and sediment which are constantly deposited onto the basin.
After millions of years of alluviation, the sediment between Mount Longmen and Mount Longquan is more than 300 meters deep, covering an area of 9,500 square kilometers, hence the emergence of the Chengdu Plain.
Chengdu, as a city on the plain sandwiched between two mountains, is endowed with the most favorable natural conditions within the Sichuan Basin and is reputed to be the best of the best. The city is decorated with picturesque scenery including green mountains which are commonly seen in east China, and snow-covered peaks with year-round ice in the west.
The 5,353 meter high Mount Daxuetang eclipses all other mountains within the administrative area of Chengdu.
Lofty mountains contribute to the formation of an abundant river system with water meandering from the mountains to the plains.
Countless small waterfalls are naturally layered upon each other.
River networks are interwoven on the plain. Especially after water from the Min River flows into the plain, the flow of water becomes very gentle and branches out. In Chengdu, you can see a relatively big river course every three to five kilometers, which makes it an area with the densest river networks on the Sichuan Plain.
Close-knit rivers carry a large amount of sediment, including nutrient-rich humus, to the plain, making the soil here increasingly fertile.
Fecund soil, plus the vertical natural belt spanning from the top of high mountains to the plain, feeds a diverse array of animals and plants, including 2,600-odd spermatophytes and 237 vertebrates. Rare animals like the giant panda and red panda also thrive here.
Despite its proximity to the Hengduan Mountains, which have frequent tectonic movement, Chengdu has a firm tectonic structure. The sediment which runs several hundred meters deep can help absorb and mitigate shockwaves. Thus, rarely do destructive earthquakes affect this area.
With breath-taking scenery, well-developed river systems, fertile soil, diverse animals and plants, and very few occurrences of earthquakes, Chengdu is surely endowed with favorable natural conditions. As was described by Li Bai: “Chengdu, carved out by Heaven millions of years ago, presents before the eyes a picturesque view of myriad beautifully decorated households.” Now, the arena of Chengdu is set, and it is yearning for its performers.
Part Ⅱ Nobility
It was the ancient Shu people who inhabited the upper reaches of the Min River that first discovered the enormous value of Chengdu. They arrived at the Chengdu Plain by going downstream and surmounting rows of mountains.
Chengdu laid a solid foundation for the supremacy of the king of the ancient Shu Kingdom. About 3,000 years ago, a magnificent city (today’s Jinsha site) showed its presence in the northwest of Chengdu, with the king ruling from within.
Delicate gold vessels and huge pieces of ivory added radiance to lavish ceremonies hosted by the king. With the excavation of more than 200 gold vessels, the Jinsha site ranks No.1 in terms of the number and type of such unearthed relics in China, compared to any other site dating back to the pre-Qin era. The excavated ivory weighed in at several tons.
Exquisite craftsmanship and futuristic aesthetics embody the spiritual belief of the king. Four holy birds spreading their wings are depicted on a two-millimeter-thick gold foil. The birds hover around the gleaming sun, forming a closed loop which symbolizes life and growth in nature.
Some 2,300 years ago, the ancient Shu kingdom was conquered by the kingdom of Qin. The newly-appointed prefectural chief, Li Bing, came with an ambitious mission. According to that mission, Chengdu would not only serve as the hub for the governance of the Shu kingdom, but also be transformed into a breadbasket providing material support for the unification of China. It was against this background that an unprecedented super project was launched, namely the Dujiangyan water conservancy project.
Li Bing mobilized the local people to fine-tune the natural conditions and divide the flood-prone Min River into two subsidiaries. The inner tributary is used for irrigation while the outer one is for the discharge of flood water.
The successful completion of the Dujiangyan water conservancy project greatly promoted the development of agriculture. Since then, the Chengdu Plain embraced such tremendous fertility that hunger was a thing of the past.
Chengdu also took away the laurel as the Land of Abundance from the Guanzhong Plain very quickly. In the 30-year war launched by the Qin kingdom to unify China, food and weapons produced in Chengdu were transported to the front line. Copious material support helped the king of the Qin kingdom secure the final success of unification.
Like the king of the Qin kingdom, Liu Bang, the king of Han, also considered Chengdu to be one of the most reliable breadbaskets during his fight with Xiang Yu. He directed Xiao He to “collect taxes and fees from Sichuan to finance food supplies for his army”. Xiao He was given the title of “The Most Meritorious Statesman” by Liu Bang, thanks to his excellent work in tax collection.
People in Chengdu paid tribute to Li Bing for his great contribution by revering him as the Guardian of Sichuan. Li Bing’s second son was also written into mythologies as God Er-Lang, a three-eyed god. Therefore, Li Bing and his second son formed the so-called master of Sichuan. In its prime, as many as 500 temples were built and dedicated to this belief.
Around 1,700 years ago, the Han Dynasty was carved into the three kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu. Zhuge Liang, a resourceful strategist, identified Chengdu as the center for the governance of Sichuan. Yet, the key to out-competing other kingdoms did not lie in the number of brilliant minds. Instead, it was the economic strength of the three core areas that had the final say on who would be the winner.
In spite of the highly developed agriculture of Chengdu Plain, the kingdom of Shu was financially weak and geographically small. As premier, Zhuge Liang needed to find a source of revenue for the kingdom. At that time, “Jin” (brocade) as a luxury aroused his interests.
“Since our people and kingdom are both financially challenged, only brocade can generate the much-needed revenue for us to defeat our enemies”, quoted from Imperial Readings of Taiping Era.
During the Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty and the Period of Three Kingdoms, Chengdu abounded in brocade production of unparalleled quality in China. It was not only sought-after by local high officials and noble lords, but also exported to the kingdoms of Wei and Wu, and even to places outside China.
In order to monopolize the production of Shu brocade, the Shu government built an official workshop in the west of Chengdu, named “Jinguan City”. Thus, Chengdu was given another beautiful sounding name, “Jin City” or “Jinguan City.”
“Dawn sees saturated reds; the town’s heavy with blooms." This is quoted from Happy Rain on a Spring Night by Du Fu, a great poet from the Tang Dynasty.
Since then, countless places named “Jin” kept emerging in Chengdu. The place where the brocade workshop was located was called Jinli.
The river where weavers used to wash brocade is still called the Jin River today.
However, Zhuge Liang “died before achieving his desired triumph.” Shu brocade was also gradually eclipsed by the silk produced in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
But Zhuge Liang’s great contribution to the governance of Sichuan has been inscribed in people’s memory forever. Therefore, locals built a splendid temple called Wuhou Temple in honor of him.
The temple ground teems with pine, cypress and bamboo, giving off the fragrance of freshness. As is described in Temple of the Premier of Shu by Du Fu, “Where is the famous premier’s temple to be found? Outside the town of brocade with cypresses around.”
The king of the ancient Shu kingdom, Emperor Qin, king of Han, Li Bing, Zhuge Liang and other powerful figures all built their success in Chengdu. Meanwhile, a group of new performers have been waiting patiently to stage their performance in this arena.
Part Ⅲ Ancient Literati
In the Pre-Qin Period and Qin and Han Dynasties, although Chengdu had some economic development, it was still a cultural backwater compared with Central China.
In the Tang and Song Dynasties, Chengdu reached its economic peak and was acknowledged as the second economic center of China, ranking only after Yangzhou. In stable and peaceful times, scholars and literati visited Chengdu as a kind of fashionable thing to do.
Famous poets like Wang Bo, Lu Zhaoling, Li Bai and Lu You all favored the city. Li Diaoyuan, a poet of the Qing Dynasty, wrote that since ancient times, it has been a common practice for poets to visit Chengdu.
In times of turbulence in Central China, scholars and literati fled to Chengdu for shelter. This was mostly seen during the An Lushan Rebellion period and Five Dynasties wartime in the late Tang Dynasty.
In AD 759, to avoid the chaos of the An-Shi Rebellion, Du Fu moved to Chengdu when he was 47 years old. After staying in the temple for a short period of time, he decided to build his own new house. He borrowed some money from his relatives, wood and bamboo from the county magistrate, and even bowls from his friends. After several months, the famous thatched cottage of Du Fu was built.
On each side of the small lane in front of the thatched cottage, there were trees and flowers. When his friends came to visit him, Du Fu would be very happy, as shown in what he wrote in A Guest Arrives (Kezhi).
"The floral path has never been swept for a guest. Today, for the first time, the rough gate opens for the gentleman.”
After all his vagrancy, Du Fu finally settled down and developed a leisurely and carefree mood to appreciate Chengdu’s beautiful spring. Under his narration Quatrains, Xiling Snow Mountain became a household name in China.
“Looking out of the window, the snow lies on the western mountains for a thousand years. Seeing through the gate, there are the ships from the eastern land of Wu.”
Thirty-plus years after Du Fu’s Chengdu arrival, Xue Tao — a well-respected female poet — came to Chengdu together with her father. Unfortunately, her father died shortly after they settled down in Chengdu. Due to her poor financial situation, she was forced to work as a courtesan to serve and entertain high officials and noble lords. At that time, poets were mostly males who liked to express their feelings and wrote on large sheets of paper. Xue Tao, with her delicate heart, thought of more exquisite and customized paper materials and she decided to make her own paper. She drew water from a well and designed a smaller sheet of paper. She even painted her paper in pink.
This smaller writing paper was immediately favored by scholars and literati. People of later generations followed Xue Tao’s method to manufacture such paper. Later, it was named as Xue Tao paper. In her later years, Xue Tao lived by the Flower Washing Brook (Huanhuaxi).
To remember her, the Chengdu people built magnificent architectural complexes by the Jin Jiang River, the Wangjiang Pavilion is one of them.
With more and more literati and scholars arriving, Chengdu gradually evolved into a city of culture and art. People there were very enthusiastic about writing poems, painting, and music. Du Fu wrote about this phenomenon in A Poem for Hua-Qing (Military Officer Hua Jingding).
Also, as optimism was a characteristic of Chengdu people, life there was full of humor and fun.
The whole city was immersed in an atmosphere of leisure and enjoyment. People were leading a life of leisure.
When about to leave Chengdu, Li Shangyin expressed his impressions.
“Chengdu is a perfect place for spending one’s remaining years. Chengdu has not only good liquors, stands are catered by ladies as pretty as Zhuo Wenjun.”
Outdoor events were not only common and grand, but also participated in by both government officials and the general public.
As written in the literary work of Song Dynasty: “Chengdu was a city of events and fun. Local people loved grand entertainment activities. Whenever there was an event, people would very much like to participate.”
Besides, people in Chengdu took huge effort to renovate tourist attractions so as to transform them into pleasure resorts, the Flower Washing Brook (Huanhuaxi) being a good example.
People grew many flowers and plants in Chengdu, including Chinese flowering crab-apple, gardenia, azalea, plum blossoms and gingko trees. The most famous flower was the peony, with Chengdu being called “the City of Peony” (Rong Cheng).
To better appreciate the beautiful scenery, Chengdu people built numerous pavilions and pagodas.
In the meantime, religious activities were booming in Chengdu. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, it was estimated that there were 43 Buddhist temples in the Chengdu area. Master Xuanzang was said to be ordained in one of these temples.
The beautiful Qingcheng Mountain was a settlement for Taoist temples, thus being renowned as the mountain of Taoism.
Literature, painting, music, liquor, recreation, and amusement, helped literati and scholars like the famed poets Li Bai, Du Fu and Xue Tao to come alive in Chengdu. Ordinary people are what set Chengdu on fire.
Part Ⅳ Everyday People
During the change of dynasties between Yuan, Ming and Qing, Chengdu was no longer a safe and peaceful area. Frequent slaughters cut the population sharply — especially after the two slaughters committed by Zhang Xianzhong at the end of Ming dynasty. Chengdu was nearly an empty city.
Then, during the switch between the Yuan and Ming dynasties and that of the Ming and Qing dynasties, to the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in the 20th century, large numbers of people from Hunan and Hubei provinces migrated to Chengdu, changing the population mix here.
New villages and towns have mushroomed and thrived around the Chengdu Plain.
“Large manors” were built by landlords.
The Hakka people introduced Tulou (circled earth buildings) to Chengdu.
Manchu people following the habit of the northern Chinese, building kuanzhai alleys (wide and narrow alleys) in northern China.
Those migrants, with living habits and dialects from their original hometowns, lived next-door to and married each other, which developed a brand-new culture in this “melting pot”. The culture represented by the noble and the erudite was replaced by a folk culture represented by a kaleidoscopic of food.
Those migrants integrated flavors from different parts of China and created Sichuan cuisine, which is widely favored. Spicy hot pot, noodles with spicy sauce, tangyuan (sweet soup balls), rice noodles with intestine, Zhong dumplings, sliced beef and offal in chili sauce, mung bean jelly with chili sauce, mapo tofu, spicy rabbit head, guokui (crusty pancakes), and wantons.
Noble lords, tradesmen and porters, all loved these delicious dishes.
Those migrants integrated their local operas —Kunqu Opera from Jiangsu, Hanchu Opera from Hubei, Qinqiang Opera from Shaanxi — with Gaoqiang Opera and Dengxi Opera from Sichuan, creating Sichuan Opera, which is famous for bianlian (face changing) and tuhuo (fire breathing).
Migrants opened tea houses all over the city. No social classes were identified and no etiquette needed to be followed here. People from all walks of life just shoot the breeze over the tea pot.
Mahjong became an activity for everyone, with people from every background sitting to enjoy it. Mahjong tables have become the most popular spot for socializing in Chengdu.
The flourishing folk culture enabled the small, commodity economy to thrive in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
In the 1920s, Yang Sen, the general of the Sichuan Clique, ordered a western-style street to be built in Chengdu. This street was called Sen Wei Road.
Zhejiang and Jiangsu business groups along with Peiping (today’s Beijing) business groups and Sichuan business groups ran a lot of the shops along the street.
It gathered 70% of total business capital in Chengdu, and was Chengdu’s CBD at the time. Sen Wei Road now has a more famous name: Chunxi Road.
The flourishing commerce and the growing population prompted Chengdu authorities to plan ring roads as early as 1936. The First Ring Road built along the city wall is 15-kilometers long. The Second Ring Road, surrounding the urban area, is 55-kilometers long. These make Chengdu into one of the most typical loop traffic cities in China.
Western-style education was also introduced to Chengdu at that time. In 1910, Christian churches from dozens of western countries jointly founded the West China Union University.
The place it was located was called Huaxi (West China) Dam. The university combined Chinese and western architectural styles, enjoying both the beauty of traditional Chinese-style gardens and the charm of western royal gardens.
Everyday people may not have been noticed. Many of them didn't even leave their names. They, however, promoted the prosperity of Chengdu.
Sichuan cuisine, Sichuan Opera, tea houses, mahjong, business streets, ring roads and modern education bring inclusiveness and development to this thriving city.
Part Ⅴ Today’s Chengdu
Chengdu has gone through many ups and downs in 3,000 years.
Modern buildings tower over the land.
Close-knit link with the whole world
Cutting-edge and varied lifestyles
People’s cultural pursuits
The future is promising.
This is Chengdu, a city with 3,000 years of vigorous history.
References come from: Chengdu History Duan Yu, Xie Hui, Luo Kaiyu, Xie Yuanlu, Su Pinxiao, Chen Shisong, Li Yingfa, Zhang Lihong, Zhang Xuejun, HeYimin.
Gratitude goes to SCOL Aerial View for its support of this photo collection.